A choice be­tween the unin­spir­ing and the un­fit

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Gerson

— Hil­lary Clin­ton’s con­ven­tion week fea­tured two of the most ef­fec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tors in the Demo­cratic Party of­fer­ing dif­fer­ent im­ages of the nom­i­nee. In Bill Clin­ton’s ver­sion, she is a “change-maker” who has “never been sat­is­fied with the sta­tus quo.” In Barack Obama’s telling, she has the “in­tel­li­gence” and “judg­ment” to carry for­ward his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ideals into a third term, be­cause the sta­tus quo is pretty darn good.

When the spot­light fi­nally came, the nom­i­nee was very much her­self — a tena­cious plod­der, ad­vo­cat­ing half-a-loaf lib­er­al­ism. This is closer to Obama’s de­scrip­tion than her hus­band’s. In Philadelphia, she made the high-stakes de­ci­sion to present her­self as con­ven­tional, nor­mal and safe, in sharp con­trast to a small, un­sta­ble man “moved by fear and pride.”

If this is a nor­mal elec­tion — in which the com­po­si­tion of the elec­torate and the turnout of var­i­ous groups roughly match re­cent pres­i­den­tial con­tests — Clin­ton’s ar­gu­ment should be enough. If this is an anti-estab­lish­ment wave elec­tion, she has the worst pos­si­ble po­lit­i­cal pro­file — boast­ing of her royal re­sume dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion.

There is no doubt about Clin­ton’s ide­o­log­i­cal frame­work. Down with Cit­i­zens United! Cli­mate change is real! Raise the min­i­mum wage! Free col­lege for ev­ery­one! Clin­ton called this agenda “bold,” which is true in the same way as Don­ald Trump call­ing him­self “a re­ally smart per­son.” She said noth­ing cre­ative from the podium that would have of­fended your av­er­age Bernie San­ders sup­porter (ex­cept the ones who be­lieve Amer­ica should de­fend it­self with tru­cu­lent sel­f­righ­teous­ness rather than weapons).

Clin­ton missed her best open­ing when it came to de­scrib­ing Amer­ica’s uni­fy­ing ideals. In Cleve­land, Repub­li­cans — shock­ingly, dis­turbingly — left this rhetor­i­cal ground un­oc­cu­pied. In his con­ven­tion speech, Obama skill­fully took this ground. But Clin­ton could not hold it. She strained might­ily, con­sulted a Broad­way mu­si­cal and pro­duced a slo­gan: “Stronger To­gether.”

I get that in­spi­ra­tion is not Clin­ton’s “thing.” But a can­di­date has weeks and months to pro­duce a mem­o­rable con­ven­tion speech. Clin­ton’s speech­writ­ing process — which in­cludes some fine writ­ers and too many po­lit­i­cal over­seers — de­liv­ered the func­tional equiv­a­lent of a State of the Union ad­dress. The speech sounded so much like the prod­uct of a com­mit­tee that you could al­most pic­ture the Post-it notes.

In mak­ing her case about Amer­ica’s fu­ture, Clin­ton high­lighted her book


(“It Takes a Vil­lage”) pub­lished in 1996. The lib­eral com­mu­ni­tar­i­an­ism found in those pages does not seem par­tic­u­larly well­suited for out­reach to work­ing-class whites, if that is one of her goals. In her at­tempt to iden­tify with a car­toon ver­sion of the blue-col­lar ev­ery­man, her fo­cus was on eco­nom­ics. The pro­gres­sive ver­sion of homo eco­nomi­cus leaves out cul­tural mat­ters en­tirely. What as­sur­ance did Clin­ton pro­vide that Demo­cratic elites even tol­er­ate more con­ser­va­tive views on, say, abor­tion? What was her ver­sion of school uni­forms or wel­fare re­form — her hus­band’s sym­bols of out­reach to cul­tural con­ser­va­tives? As a pol­icy mat­ter, Demo­cratic cen­trism is still dead.

Clin­ton’s de­fense of the honor of the military against Trump’s ridicule was ef­fec­tive and needed. But it does not count as in­no­va­tive pol­icy out­reach. Sim­i­larly, the men­tion of her Methodist faith was an im­prove­ment on Trump’s sec­u­lar si­lence. But it was brief and un­teth­ered to the rest of her rea­son­ing — more an or­na­ment than a foun­da­tion.

The speech shined in at­tack mode — dis­miss­ing Trump as the out­sourcer in chief, the breaker of al­liances, the pur­veyor of ca­sual misog­yny, the Twit­ter troll who must be de­nied the nu­clear codes. It says some­thing that the most neg­a­tive as­pects of Clin­ton’s re­marks were the most mem­o­rable. She is a fighter. And Democrats seem happy that their pol­icy wonk moon­lights as a cage boxer.

In the speech, she put her fin­ger on the most fright­en­ing el­e­ment of Trump’s ap­peal: “Our Founders fought a rev­o­lu­tion and wrote a Con­sti­tu­tion so Amer­ica would never be a na­tion where one per­son had all the power.” It is fair to say that the Founders would have held the main the­sis of Trump’s can­di­dacy — the prom­ise of a man on horse­back to save a fright­ened and supine na­tion — in ut­ter con­tempt. It also says some­thing that one of the strong­est at­tacks on the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee is the de­fense of self­gov­ern­ment.

This is an ex­tra­or­di­nary po­lit­i­cal mo­ment. Any rea­son­able Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial con­tender other than Trump prob­a­bly would be beat­ing Clin­ton hand­ily. Any rea­son­able Demo­cratic con­tender other than Clin­ton prob­a­bly would be beat­ing Trump hand­ily. The par­ties, in their wis­dom, have cho­sen the un­trusted against the un­sta­ble, the unin­spir­ing against the un­fit. Take your pick, and take your chances.

Michael Gerson is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@ wash­post.com.

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